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"Ametric"? Whazzat?

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"Ametric"? Whazzat?

A commentator accused me of throwing a curveball the other day when I used the term "ametric." Now that was a fair comment because looking around I realize that that word doesn't actually, you know, exist. So let me try and rough out what I might have meant. Following the idea of "tonal" music came the idea of "atonal" music, which actually should better have been called "pantonal" music because it is not without tones, it is simply without a central, reference tone. Actually the idea of "ametric" is probably more logical than the idea of "atonal." Meter in music is defined as follows:
In music, metre (Am. meter) refers to the regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats. Unlike rhythm, metric onsets are not necessarily sounded, but are nevertheless expected by the listener. (from Wikipedia)
That describes a whole lot of music. Everything, in fact, that falls into a regularly recurring pattern of strong and weak beats: 3/4, 4/4, even the obviously evil 5/4. Perhaps even the manifestly outré 13/8. But this does not capture all music, no indeed. Here are some examples of music that is without meter, or "ametric."


Now there are certainly durations there, even if notated in an unfamiliar way, but is there meter? I think not. Here is an example from the 12th century:


Just how this music is to be interpreted rhythmically is very unclear. As Willi Apel says, "Properly speaking, no transcription into modern notes is possible for music of this kind..." (The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900 - 1600 p. 210)

There is a whole stream of music from Gregorian chant to Messiaen that avoids regularly recurring patterns of strong and weak beats, i.e. meter. The great advantage of meter is that it is a powerful way to organize ensemble music or even to coordinate the different voices of music on a single instrument. But sometimes the music tends to overflow the meter as we see in Chopin:


In the antepenultimate measure the upper voice takes off and utters a long passage completely outside the meter. Our notation has long preserved a way of avoiding meter through the use, as here, of so-called "grace notes" which supposedly take "no time." In the cadenzas of concertos, the soloist need not observe any metrical restrictions. But even in orchestral music, some composers, such as Lutosławski, have passages where certain instruments are to play freely though within a fixed duration determined by the conductor.

Music without meter is still music with durations whether they are indicated loosely or exactly. In Messiaen's music, he frequently suggests birdsong in ametric passages (because one of the characteristics of birdsong is that it observes no meter):

Click to enlarge
Lots of durations, but no real meter. I find, looking at my compositions, I have often tried to either weaken or eliminate a feeling of meter:


There are a host of other examples, of course, from the unmeasured preludes of the Baroque to all sorts of modern examples in John Cage, Morton Feldman and many others.


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